Claude Monet (1840–1926) is one of France’s most famous and beloved painters, but until now almost nobody has heard of Monet’s older brother, Léon (1836–1917). Léon Monet was a Rouen-based color chemist, industrialist, and an early patron and collector of Impressionist paintings by his brother Claude, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro. Shortly before her death at age ninety-one in 2017, Françoise Cauvin, Léon Monet’s granddaughter, requested Claude’s 1874 portrait of her grandfather to be shown publicly. In the years since Madame Cauvin’s wish, curators have brought new attention to Léon Monet, notably in a 2020 exhibition at Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts about another early, Rouen-based collector of Impressionist art, François Depeaux. Now we have “Léon Monet: The Artist’s Brother and Collector” at the Musée du Luxembourg, organized by the nineteenth-century specialist Géraldine Lefebvre.
Léon Monet has been described as sharp-minded, friendly, and hard-working, if at times a bit truculent and careless with money. Later in life when the brothers quarreled, Claude described him as a “maniac” and “hard.” For many years, Claude’s son Jean worked at Léon’s paint-and-dye factory in Maromme for the Basel-based Geigy & Co. Uncle and nephew grew dissatisfied with each other, and Claude felt that his son was not enjoying the successful career Léon had promised him. Worse, due to the toxic chemicals at work, Jean suffered breathing problems, as did Léon’s stepdaughter, Adrienne. Although the cause of Jean’s illness was unknown, Léon accused Jean of spreading it to Adrienne. She died in 1911, followed by Jean in 1914, four years after leaving his uncle’s business. The brothers broke all contact, and Claude did not attend Léon’s funeral in 1917. A year later, however, he admitted to Léon’s widow his regrets over the estrangement.
Before this break, the brothers had been on friendly terms. In 1901, the critic Paul Lorquet claimed that Claude painted with synthetic pigments. It is, however, unknown whether Claude made use of his brother’s pigments in his own paintings. The researcher Georges Roque remarks in the catalogue that almost all of the pigments the Impressionist used were synthetic and recently put on the market—keeping with Charles Baudelaire’s dictum that the modern painter should use current materials in portraying contemporary life. Alongside the works of art, the exhibition features paints, fabrics, and documents of financial accounts produced at Léon’s factory.
Monet’s visits to see his brother in Rouen resulted in the artist’s renowned series depicting the city’s cathedral in 1894 and the earlier 1872 Seine at Rouen (once in Léon’s possession and now featured in the exhibition). Léon had a seaside residence at the Petites-Dalles that appealed to painters due to its impressive cliffs and beaches. Léon owned paintings of the coast by Berthe Morisot (On the Beach, Les Petites-Dalles, Fécamp, 1873), by Claude’s daughter-in-law Blanche Hoschedé Monet (Les Petites-Dalles, 1885–90), and by Claude himself.
The central painting of the exhibition, Portrait of Léon Monet, dates from 1874, a year crucial to both brothers. At the 1874 “Exhibition of the Impressionists,” Claude shocked Paris’s art world with his 1872 Impression, Sunrise, now at the Musée Marmottan Monet (which I discussed in a Dispatch from November 30, 2022). At the same time, Léon Monet promoted Geigy & Co’s new aniline colors as the company’s representative in Rouen. In his portrait of Léon, Claude portrayed his brother as hard-faced and smartly dressed with a fashionable bowler hat and a dark bowtie. The Rouen painter Joseph Delattre said that Monet was dissuaded by Renoir and Sisley from painting a background, insisting that touching the portrait again would ruin it. Upon receiving the painting, Léon hid it from view, perhaps because he found it unfinished or perhaps because it made him look fierce. He may have suspected that Claude was reverting to the satirical instincts of his youth, when he began as a caricaturist before the plein-air pioneer Eugène Boudin advised him to portray outdoors scenes.
In general, Léon was a champion of Claude’s work. Even in 1912, when the brothers were not speaking, Léon countered a critic skeptical of Monet’s drawing abilities with the remark that his brother’s early notebooks proved that Claude had been a skillful draftsman since adolescence. In this exhibition, we see Monet’s first book of drawings from 1856, bought by Léon in 1893, along with caricatures from 1857 of Englishmen sporting twirling mustaches and bristling sideburns. His turn to pencil sketches of buildings and landscapes shows his eagerness to follow Boudin’s advice.
View of Sainte-Adresse (1864) was painted from Monet’s room at his uncle and aunt’s house in Le Havre, where the struggling artist used to stay in his early twenties. Le Havre is a port on the English Channel, and often the sky appears watery as the sun begins to break through the clouds. The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1867) depicts the sea, the cliffs, and the little boats bathed in a golden sunset. Japanese art was in vogue in the West during this period, and there is a Japanese aura about the painting, which finds its home at the Museum of Fine Arts in the city of Tochigi. A Japanese fan rests on the mantelpiece in Interior/Meditation: Mme Monet on a Sofa (ca. 1871). The chintz sofa is striking, as is the model, Camille Doncieux, Monet’s first wife. The painting was created in London, where the couple took refuge from the Franco-Prussian War. Years later, when Claude acquired his house at Giverny, Léon was impressed enough by his brother’s collection of Japanese prints to buy his own Japanese drawings. The exhibition presents Léon’s Japanese collection, which includes Yoshiiku Ochiai’s Raising of Silk Worms (1868).
Léon’s good eye for Impressionist paintings extended beyond his brother’s work. An important piece in his collection is Renoir’s Paris, The Institute at the Quai Malaquais (1872), depicting the urban landscape before the plague of motor traffic, when flâneurs looked for books rather than posters and trinkets while wandering the stalls on the quays.
The exhibition is beautifully designed with a mixture of French and Japanese style that would have pleased the Monet brothers. Lovers of Impressionist art will be happy to discover Léon Monet’s collection, which includes, in addition to familiar masterpieces, gems from private collections hitherto known only by few.